Where Are Car Colours Heading?

16 Jul 2021 | 12.14 pm

Where Are Car Colours Heading?

Mazda senior designer Sandra Höner zu Bentrup explains all

16 Jul 2021 | 12.14 pm

Sandra Höner zu Bentrup (pictured), colour and material designer at Mazda Research Europe, provides insights on colours, trends and the overall colour design development.

What does the process of developing a new colour look like after that initial research stage?

We take initial ideas about colours and materials and start to mix and match them on mood boards. This gives us a feeling of what might work as an overall design concept. When we have a promising idea, we also make samples in our paint shop to see what a certain colour will look like in reality.

Ideally, we end up with a comprehensive design concept that incorporates all three major areas: The exterior, interior, and colours and trim. There is no single recipe for how we get there, however – it’s a creative process, and there’s a lot of trial and error.

Some ideas I carry around with me for months until the time for them to evolve finally comes. Trying different ideas, then casting them out and starting again: For me working in advanced design, this is usually how it goes.

How do trends from other industries influence the colour design process?

Trends come and go much faster than cars do – we must aim for a more timeless look. Although fashion, for example, is a fast-moving industry, some developments are more durable than others. These are usually trends connected to overarching social issues or developments, like sustainability or digitalisation.

They tend to change consumer behaviour more permanently and eventually cascade down to the automotive industry. As designers, it is our job to filter out those trends that will stick around for a long time or even forever.

Take digitalisation: A lot of people find this development very abstract and somewhat alienating. They seek spaces that are comforting and calm. This yearning for cosiness manifests itself in warmer colours and natural materials – a design direction that you can already see in the MX-301 (pictured below).

What colours do you expect to see more of in future cars?

One trend I find very promising is tinted colours, which means one dominant neutral colour with a subtle colour tint that you can only see in a certain light. Globally speaking, I’m also seeing a move towards more vibrant colours. Especially in the Asian markets, uncommon colours like yellow are popping up more and more.

In Europe, we have been seeing more two-tone models for several years now. We also offer this option for the MX-30 – it adds a fresh look and provides even more scope for customisation.

I think the growing e-mobility segment plays a role here and might be a catalyst for more experimental colour combinations. People who buy an electric car tend to be keener to try out ‘new things’, including in terms of colour.

How long does it take to develop a new colour?

For a body colour, the overall process usually takes between two and three years, but it very much depends on the complexity of the colour. For ‘Soul Red’, it took a lot longer because we had to develop a completely new technique. Once a first colour master is produced, it then takes another 18 months until the new hue is ready for mass production.

Are there any car models where your department had the lead in defining the colours?

The design for the CX-30 was almost exclusively in the hands of the European design studio from the very beginning. From the exterior to the use of colour in the interior, we were involved in all major design decisions along the way. For this model, we decided to reduce the colour palette inside the vehicle to create a sense of purity, using only a few deliberate highlights.

I think we achieved that vision quite well. Contributing to this was really special and exciting – even more so because the CX-30 went on to become a very successful model.

How do you apply the body paint to the car?

We offer several paint options. Our solid colour includes a base, a coloured layer and a clear coat. This is how we do our ‘Arctic White’, for example. Next, there are metallic or mica colours: These use the same build-up, but little mica or metallic flakes are added to the coloured layer to create that metallic shine and reflectiveness.

With ‘Velocity Red’, we first started experimenting with an additional lacquer where the clear coat is tinted to give a bit more depth. But the truly ground-breaking development came with ‘Soul Red’ and its further evolution ‘Soul Red Crystal’.

Here, we built in another layer to add depth and shadow. There is the base, the colour and reflective coat, to which we added light-absorbing flakes, a translucent coat, and then the protective clear coat on top.

When the colour layer dries, it causes the aluminium and absorptive flakes to align in a certain way. When the sun hits the surface, all the flakes reflect the light at the same angle and create the exceptional depth and brilliance of this colour. With this new technique, we achieved 50 percent more depth and 20 percent more saturation than the original ‘Soul Red’, which was already quite saturated.

To create the maximum effect, it is also crucial to apply the layers of paint in a certain way. That is why show cars always look so beautiful and perfect – they are painted by hand. At Mazda, we basically taught our robots to imitate the motions of our master painters in mass production. We call that approach ‘Takuminuri’. We currently use this method for ‘Soul Red Crystal’ and ‘Machine Grey’.

How do you make the paint durable?

It boils down to the quality of the paint and the way it is applied. In the past, red had a bad reputation because the colour faded over time, like it did on my first car. This was due to the durability of the pigments themselves: In the early days, red pigments were made using lead – not a very sustainable approach.

Manufacturers then started switching to organic pigments. But with continued exposure to sunlight and the elements, they often developed stained patterns on the body surface. On top of this, really vibrant colours could only be created by using a very large amount of pigment, which was very expensive.

We’ve come a long way since then, and discolouration is not really an issue anymore. ‘Soul Red’, for example, uses high-chroma pigments that are very durable in themselves. And the clear top coat protects the lacquer to make it durable. All the colours we use now will last a really long time, if not forever.

Aside from Mazda, is there a brand that you think does colour especially well?

There are a lot of great examples in the field of product design. One I still admire is the plastic chairs designed by Werner Panton in the 60s. He really excelled in bringing together the materials and colours of his time in a way that feels both unique and very organic.

There are also many contemporary designers and artists who use colour very effectively. For example, I like the very subtle use of colour that the Japanese design studio Nendo uses to express purity and clarity in their designs.

The total opposite – but equally great – is the outdoor furniture by Paola Lenti, who uses brightly dyed ropes to create interesting colour combinations.

To me, great colour design is never just about the colour itself – you have to consider what the product is supposed to be and how colour can help enhance that vision. It’s when every design aspect clicks into place that colour really has the chance to shine.

 

 

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